We’ve been back from our trip to San Diego for a week now. The extremely cold temperatures in Michigan make us wish we had stayed in Southern California longer.
Below please view Exotic Birds – Part II – The best of my photographs from the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park.
A New Beginning
Spring will be here soon. Already I’ve had a glimpse of a returning bird that I have not photographed before. The Horned Lark. This lark usually returns to Michigan early…. late February… to start its nesting behavior. If the horned larks can stand these viciously cold temperatures and blowing winds, then I guess I can too.
It’s been a long, cold, and dreary winter in Michigan. On most days, I bravely put on my winter wear like most Michiganders and venture outside with my camera. However, my winter weariness skyrocketed when another Polar Vortex returned to the Midwest, bringing arctic high temperatures and brutal winds.
Something snapped. I just had to get out of Michigan. My husband and I decided to fly to paradise for a week. San Diego.
What a difference! Mild, warm and sunny weather… refreshing and nurturing coastal breezes. Just what we needed.
Since we only had a week, we decided to explore the locations that guaranteed a wide variety of wild (but captured) birds: The San Diego Zoo, Safari Park and Botanical Gardens.
Generally, I am not fond of taking my camera to zoos, but the facilities at the San Diego parks are known nation-wide to be outstanding, expansive resources that simulate the animals’ natural environment and focus on wildlife conservation. The parks harbor a wide variety of wild birds from all over the world.
Because so much walking is necessary at both parks, I decided not to haul around my heavy 300mm lens. Instead, I took my 135 mm 2.0 lens, along with a 1.4 extender. I did not see every bird in the aviaries and other enclosures in the parks (impossible given the multitude of hiding places inherent in the natural habitat provided) and I did not photograph every bird I saw.
Below please find Part I of what I consider to be my best photos from the San Diego Zoo & Safari Park. Since most of the birds were from far away lands and unknown to us, we took photos of the ID display boards to help us with identification when we got home.
Exotic Bird Photography
Like most people, I would probably never have the opportunity to observe, photograph, and enjoy exotic bird species if not for these stunning San Diego resources. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to take my camera to the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park and Botanical Gardens, and leave behind (for a short time) one of the worst Midwestern winters ever.
I’ve often wondered why some of my bird photos are less sharp than others. Generally, I prefer the tack sharp, ultra clear photos, but I don’t always get them.
A photo that is in-focus does not mean that it is tack sharp. And soft focusing does not mean that the photo is out-of-focus. Out-of-focus means that all the lines are blurred to some degree. In-focus means that the various shapes in the focus area are sharp to some degree.
There are so many reasons why your images may not achieve their highest degree of sharpness. I included a list (at the bottom of this post) of all the reasons I could think of. No doubt there are more.
Ultimate Control is An Illusion
Since there are so many variables, it seems that it would be an impossible task for a bird photographer to consistently achieve tack sharp photos all of the time. That kind of control, for someone working in the great outdoors, is an illusion.
Be As Discriminating As You Can
I strive for image sharpness in every outdoor photograph I take. I also try to position my camera (the where/when/how) so that my photos are artful and well framed. Like any art form, what looks good and what looks sharp are both subjective.
So, be as discriminating as you can with your work and trust your eye and your perspective. Put sharp focus high on your list, but understand what you are up against. Get a better understanding of the limitations of your equipment and the limitations of photographing wild birds. The constraints you will encounter with equipment and nature are minimal compared to the stunning images you will capture.
I was driving on the backroads of the Allegan Forest when I came across these savannah sparrows. Different settings, different light, different action, different levels of sharpness.
Issues That May Impact Image Sharpness.
Is your shutter speed set high enough for your moving subject?
Did you use a tripod and/or cable release? Or did you hand hold the camera?
Is the amount of light optimal so that your ISO is as low as possible? Noise impacts clarity.
Where’s the light coming from?
What aperture setting is being used- wide open apertures cause DOF issues and softer images?
How big is your subject?
How close to your subject are you able to get?
What type/quality of lens are you using?
How far away is the background from your subject?
What focus mode is set?
What focus priority is set?
Are in-camera “filters” set – so the camera automatically applies “fixes” that may affect focus?
Does the camera/lens have a built in stabilizer?
Did you use manual focus?
Is the camera’s digital sensor high quality?
Has the image been magnified and consequently looks less focused?
Does you subject contrast strongly with its surroundings?
And a few more things that stand in the way of tack sharp photos that can not be attributed to the camera, the photographer or the bird: a) The pollen from the trees, weeds, grasses and b) the dust, smoke and other particles that are floating in the air. These particles make everything your lens sees hazy and less clear. Good News! Haze and Pollen are much reduced in the cold months…. so photos are clearer.
You don’t see very many red headed woodpeckers around Southwest Michigan.
Rarely, like once every few years, one will visit our feeders. The other woodpeckers, even the big Pileated Woodpecker, are more visible and less cautious then the Red Headed.
Non-birders often mistakenly identify the Red-Bellied Woodpecker as the Red Headed. Big difference. There’s a photo of the red bellied on my “Gallery of Woodpecker Photos” page.
The mature Red-Headed Woodpecker has red feathers covering its entire head. The immature Redheaded resembles the adult, but does not have its distinctive red head. Instead, its head is brown with just a small, faint patch of red feathers on its forehead.
Adult and Juvenile Red Headed Woodpeckers
I was lucky enough to capture both the adult and juvenile Red Headed Woodpeckers one morning in a wooded glen near Lake Michigan. I usually use spot metering when I photograph very small birds (hummers, wrens) and partial metering for average size (robins) birds. On this shoot, I decided to experiment with what is suppose to be the most reliable of the automatic metering systems: Evaluative Metering.
What is Metering?
Photography is about light. All modern cameras are equipped with automatic metering systems that measure light; how much and how strong. Metering is the camera’s Job 1 because without first measuring the light, it can not set the aperture, shutter and ISO to create the proper exposure.
Evaluative metering (It’s called “matrix” metering for Nikon) works by dividing the viewfinder scene into different segments and calculating the exposure of each segment separately. The camera’s computer analyzes the data, throws in extra weight/importance around the focus points, and then, using a super secret algorithm and database comparison system, calculates exposure.
Automatic Exposure Compensation Applied
Essentially, the algorithm that calculates evaluative metering is automatically applying exposure compensation (see previous post on exposure compensation: “Photographing Sandpipers on the Beach) by weighing the focusing areas more heavily in its calculations.
This evaluative metering algorithm is NOT applied when the camera is set to the other metering modes: spot metering, partial metering or center weighted average metering. That is why evaluative metering is considered the most reliable of the automatic exposure settings.
Does Evaluative Metering Eliminate the Need to Check the Histogram?
If evaluative metering is making exposure compensation adjustments based on its computer’s calculations, the photographer will be less likely to have to move the Exposure Compensation dial to adjust ambient light exposure.
But you still should make it a habit to check the histogram. Don’t assume that evaluative metering system has got the exposure under control.
A Tribute to the Red Headed Woodpecker
There was a tribute to the red headed woodpecker painted on a home near where I photographed them. I have included a photograph of that painting below. I can only assume that the owners of this house love these birds as much as I do. Since I don’t have a painting of this bird on my house, probably more.
I love to photograph the sandpipers on the beach. Beautiful, subtle colors of the birds’ feathers complement the warm tones reflected in the sand and water. I usually sit down on the sand at bird level and secure my camera on a miniature tripod that is height adjustable, able to handle long lenses and manage the sandy terrain. Sometimes I cheat and bring a low stool with me. This makes it easier to get up and follow the birds quickly.
You’ll find different sorts of sandpipers skittering about on almost all beaches, poking around for invertebrates buried in the sand. Along with seagulls, they are an integral part of the beach scape. They blend. Even their nests (a slight depression in the sand) don’t stand out.
Sandpipers don’t seem especially wary of photographers, which helps when you are down in the sand with them. That lack of anxiety is a blessing to bird photographers because it gives us time to pause and think before we shoot. Quite a luxury in the world of bird photography.
The Luxury of Time
So you have the luxury of time when photographing sandpipers on the beach. Why not take this time to think about how best to improve your photography by learning more about how you can better manage your camera’s automatic exposure system.
Exposure Compensation Dial for Natural Light
Beaches are full of sand, sky and water, very reflective and very bright. The auto exposure metering system on your camera has all sorts of algorithms to do the math and figure out what exposure is proper for the scene. Since conditions on the beach are not average, the little computer that calculates the camera’s auto exposure can set the wrong exposure for the scene.
That’s why most digital cameras allow photographers to over ride the camera’s settings with an “exposure compensation” dial. When you play with the exposure compensation dial on your camera, you are essentially changing the camera’s “optimal” exposure reading.
How do you Know When to Adjust the Camera’s Auto Exposure Reading?
Use the Camera’s Histogram
All digital DSLR’s have a display called the histogram. A histogram is a graph showing the brightness levels of the pixels for every image the camera takes. The graph runs from left to right and shows values from 0 (black/dark) to 255 (white/bright). Mid tone pixels are in the middle.
The fastest, most reliable way to determine if you need to adjust exposure while photographing on the beach is to follow this simple formula.
Simple Formula to Adjust Exposure on the Beach
1) Find the Exposure Compensation Dial on your camera. (There should be 2 dials, one for adjusting light for your flash and one for adjusting natural light.) Make sure the Exposure Compensation dial for natural light is set in the center, on 0 or null. With this setting, the photographer is relying on the camera to determine the correct exposure.
2) Take a quick test photograph of your subject.
3) Check the histogram’s RIGHTMOST data for the photograph. (For this test, no need to check the data on the left side of the histogram.)
If the display is touching the right edge of the histogram, the exposure should be fine.
If the data is not quite to the right edge of the histogram, just add exposure by moving the dial a little to the right. (on the “+” side)
If the data is crawling way over the right edge of the histogram (clipping) that means that there’s WAY TOO MUCH LIGHT. This is very bad. Lost details means lost forever. No post processing software can bring back those over exposed details. Simple solution: Move the dial one stop to the left, or subtract exposure. (on the “-” side).
Take another test photograph and recheck your histogram. Keep making adjustments until the RIGHTMOST data is just touching the right edge of the histogram.
All it takes is a quick look at the histogram. It will give you much more accurate information than just checking the display on the back of your camera.
One Last Thing
The beach is a pleasant place to photograph and the shore birds are generally patient and cooperative. However, cameras and sand (especially blowing sand) are not a good mix, so take some precautions to minimize contact. And be sure to bring your camera bag for when you are not using the camera.
Capturing Speed, Movement & Energy in Bird Photography
Capturing speed, movement, and energy of multiple birds makes photos more interesting. The take off and landing shots are captivating because you can see how birds contort their bodies to do what we will never be able to do.
Photographing Tree Swallows
My goal for these photos was to capture the coming together of speed, movement and purpose/personality. This meant that I had to minimize the distractions, keep a cool background, find a bird that I had not photographed before, AND tell a story.
I took my camera to a local park to observe tree swallows. The tree swallows in this area have banded together to chase away all other birds. They have taken over every single blue bird house in the park.
Using A Monopod for Quick, Easy Setup of the Camera
To capture the activities of more than one bird, I needed to be able to quickly move the camera while at the same time keeping the camera stable. I attached my camera/lens to my monopod. Monopods are easy to travel with, light weight, easy to set up, and take up less space than my tripod.
As always, I’m there early, so the light is soft and complimentary. There are almost no trees near the bird house to provide shade. I setup my equipment so my back is to the light. Since I have to hold the monopod and I planned to be there awhile, I brought a 3 legged stool. I did not bring the tripod and remote because I did not plan to fix my camera on the spot. I wanted to be versatile and be able to swivel the monopod to capture the action.
NOTE: Being outside of your car and close to the subject does tend to make the birds nervous. It’s been my experience that to birds, cars are less scary than humans outside of cars.
AI Servo Focusing on Canon DSLR Cameras
Spot focusing is an option, but since I’m hoping to capture multiple birds, I widen the camera’s focusing gaze and set it to best respond when subject movement can be unpredictable. “AI Servo” is Canon’s predictive autofocus system. It continuously refocuses and tries to predict where the subject will be during the next focus”. If your camera has some sort of predictive autofocus, use it, so your shutter finger is not the only tool you have to help track focus.
Setting the Depth of Field for Multiple Birds
I set the shutter preferred to around 1/2000-1/2500 sec -and check what the aperture and ISO calculate out to be. Tree swallows are much bigger than hummers, and my setup is very close to my subjects. More of the view finder is filled with bird, so I’m not too concerned when I see a higher ISO. I let the ISO 2500 stay. As the morning gets brighter, that number will go down.
It’s bright enough so the aperture is not wide open at 2.8. I want more clarity in my depth of field just in case I get a chance to shoot multiple birds that are different distances away from the camera. A 2.8 aperture will blur the background and possibly one of the birds. I think about switching to manual mode and setting the aperture and shutter speed. I decide to leave it on shutter preferred because the AI Servo tracking on the camera will tighten up the aperture as needed when it tracks multiple subjects.
Assessing the Photographs
Overall, I think I accomplished my goal. I’m not happy with the background of the last photo. It’s pretty, but also distracting. I had to zoom significantly to minimize the background. The first photo’s background is quite grey, the viewer’s eyes are focused on the birds squabbling.
I shoot birds — with a camera. Over the years, I’ve shot quite a few….
I consider my photographs as unique gifts. Generally, they are well received, if only because they are given freely as tokens of my appreciation, or to celebrate an occasion.
Who doesn’t like free stuff?
I’m writing this blog to tap into the community of photographers and birders – anyone interested in the incredible diversity and beauty of the bird world.
Shooting this energy while at the same time capturing personality attributes of birds produces photos that are captivating on so many levels. There appear to be so many similarities in the behaviors of humans and birds and I find this connection between my subjects and myself gratifying on a personal level. NOTE: I fully realize the quagmire I get into by using my profoundly imbedded human perspective to try to interpret relationships between birds and make comparisons between humans and birds……and I promise I will try to take a less anthropocentric view when discussing these relationships.
I have alot to learn about birds and photographing them…and I hope I have something to offer others who share my interests. Ann Lamott writes “just take it bird by bird”. That’s just what I intend to to.